Great Balls of Fire in Istanbul

Trip Start Oct 30, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Turkey  ,
Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The alarm went off at 4am ... ouch. We got ready and headed downstairs for our taxi that we had booked for 4.30 am. We waited for a while and watched as a taxi pulled up (different to the one we had called) and noticing our packs said "Airport?" "Yes", we replied, "but we had already called a taxi...". "That's me!...No 16...right", looking above us... yes, you can read. "Sorry, we called a different company", thinking that he was using all the tricks he could to get a customer. He replied the name of his company, but was wrong.

We wanted to avoid the cutthroat taxis here, notorious for overcharging tourists especially on the run to the airport, and it was best (we were advised) to pre-book, as we had done.

The taxi reversed further up the street and waited, while we waited as well. After 15 minutes of waiting with still no taxi, and with Christie stressing and telling Glenn that "maybe THAT is our taxi and if not, its our only choice!", Glenn relented and approached the taxi again. This time, the driver pulled out a card, saying "maybe this is the number that you called..."

Yes, it was the right number (but the card looked dodgy)... and keen to get going, but still cautious of being ripped off, Glenn checked the cost, saying that it should be around 15 Litas. The driver replied "Don't know, it depends on the meter...maybe 12, maybe 15". Ok, it sounds good... we (finally) have a lift! It turns out that he was a nice honest bloke and on the meter it was only 12 Litas, and that is all he charged us. Maybe he was our taxi after all... hmmmm all this paranoia is not doing us good.

We checked in nice and early for our flight and of course now had two hours to kill... we looked around, but nothing was open - only a snack machine, so we used our spare change to get coffee and a snack. We still had to change money, and didn't think we would have much luck changing Lithuanian Litas in Turkey, but we had to wait until 6am for the currency exchange office to open in the airport - and of course they didn't have Turkish Lira! So we changed it into Euros... with a stop in Spain ahead in our trip, it may come in handy.

The plane trip was ok, and we arrived in Turkey. From the airport, we caught a train and then a tram to get to the centre of town. The public transport was good - using a token system (like a coin) that was used for a single journey on each type - making it simple. The tram soon got packed, and with our bags it was a little awkward, especially as it took quite a while to get into the centre.

The heat was a very notable difference from the Baltic countries - it was so bright and the sun so intense, that our energy levels were drained already! The trip along in the tram gave us a quick overview of the architecture - the Muslim religions influence on the architecture, with many mosques visible on the skyline it reminded us of our time in Morocco.

We walked down to our accommodation - taking a while to get our bearings. It was basic, but quite a good deal and close to all the sights of interest. We set out for lunch, but with the heat, we just had to follow up with an ice cream!

We walked around town, but the heat was unbearable. We passed the old ancient hippodrome remains, the centre strip still remained, containing an ancient obelisk originally from Egypt, and several other columns. We passed a fountain, where the locals would go to drink, very tempting for us, but we decided to stick to bottled water - we have had enough upset stomachs on this trip already!

We were a little surprised how unbearable the heat was, and so retired early. We thought that we had better book a few more nights at the hotel (we had only booked two, in case it was no good), but thought we would do it the next morning. However, the next morning, when we asked to book a few more nights at the hostel - the reply "sorry we are booked out" brought back déjà vu again. What! We will be moving accommodation yet again. It was such a shame as it was a nice place. Still, we had the place for tonight.

We spent the majority of the rest of this day on the Internet - Glenn was busy looking at plans for a surprise for Christie, and Christie was looking at options for a new place to stay. By the end of the day, we had found a new place to stay and had booked flight tickets for a surprise, which although it would mean cutting our time short in Istanbul, would be worth it.

The following day, we had lots of sight seeing to fit in! Yet, we also had to move accommodation, so we decided to move first thing, so as not to get in the road of sightseeing later on. We walked to our new place - quite a walk away, but our room was not ready yet :( We decided to leave our bags with them to store and go sightseeing anyway. But first, breakfast! It wasn't cheap and the Turkish coffee was around $4 Australian! That's more expensive than at home! Glenn was stubborn (as usual) and refused to pay that much for a coffee - so instead he went to a stall and ordered instant coffee (for about $2 Australian). And yes, it was crap - no other way to describe it really.

We first headed for the Hagia Sophia - an old Christian church, massive in size, which had been converted into mosque. It was now a museum, and had impressive mosaics remaining from its original time as a Christian church and also Muslim decoration from its time as a Mosque. It took quite some time to get through it - it was a huge structure, and was filled with crowds of people.

We were quite exhausted already, but decided that we had better see the Topkapi Palace. This was originally home to the Ottoman sultans, a rich palace built on vast grounds, and is now preserved as a museum. The place was absolutely huge - walking the grounds just to get there in the heat left us very tired. We both looked at each other before entering and questioned whether we really wanted to visit - we were already tired and worn out before we had gone in! Still, we thought that we had better - it was one of the star tourist attractions after all. We found it HOT, and not all that interesting. There were several exhibits of beautiful jewellery and treasures, which was impressive, but the crowds of people made the proper appreciation of its beauty quite difficult.

Glenn enjoyed the armoury exhibitions, with ancient Turkish, Persian and Egyptian swords and other weapons. Yet, it was the religious exhibition that was the most crowded. It was considered a holy pilgrimage for many to visit, as it contained hairs and writings of the Prophet Mohammed, but it was almost impossible to see anything with the rest of the visitors (mostly pilgrims) crowding around. There were readings from the Qur'an (Koran), which apparently go round the clock - 24 hours! Another exhibit supposedly contained the arm of John the Baptist, with the skeletal remains visible through a window in a gold casing - allowing a peak inside.

Totally exhausted, we left, drained of energy and decided to head to the hotel to see if our room was ready. Checking with the owner, he said that only room that was avail was downstairs - a tiny room with a window opening out to the common/breakfast area outside (i.e. no privacy if you wanted the window open!). He then said that he had another place which we may prefer, obviously sensing that we weren't jumping up and down with what was offered, ... it was a little dearer, as it included a bathroom in the room, but to let us know that at the moment, it had a water problem but it should be fixed....

What a nightmare! We decided to have a look at the other place, and the owner drove us down for a look - it seemed ok, so with them promising that the water would be fixed by that evening (the water had been turned off due to a major leak), we accepted. The new owner was unfortunately less friendly - maybe less warm would be a better description, and we were concerned that if the water wasn't fixed by the evening that we would be in for a bigger nightmare.

Still, not to dwell on things out of our control, we decided to head back out and visit the Blue Mosque, its name deriving from the blue interior. We had to first wait for a prayer session to finish, before being able to visit. It was quite an impressive structure.

After all the sightseeing, Glenn's eyes opened wide when he saw a sticky concoction of toffee being made outside - the locals queuing up for it. Of course he couldn't resist and the sugar hit helped get back some energy.

We passed the Turkish sweet shops and bought some baklava and other goodies for dessert. Yummy! Back at the hotel, the water had been fixed! Phew!

The next day, we went out for tea, actually Apple tea - yum! We ended up back at our favourite restaurant again for lunch - a placed packed with locals and a really friendly waiter that warmed up to us after our few visits and liked to chat.

Christie wanted to work on the website (as we were getting too far behind) and so Glenn decided to head out and get a haircut! He decided to ask the internet guy if he knew a decent place for a haircut as he had a cool looking hairstyle and local knowledge was better than taking a pot luck chance. He gave directions and Glenn set out, but couldn't find the place. He came back to tell Christie he was going to another one that he had found a brochure for (with a map!), but when the internet guy asked if he had found it - no, he replied "come on I'll take you... ", so off we went...

He was very generous - it was a fair walk after all, and he also helped translate with the barber that Glenn wanted a cut, and when asked if a shave as well... seeing the cut throat blade, Glenn thought, "Ok, why not... I always wanted a cutthroat razor shave". (He had expected it in Thailand, but got the cheap disposable and DRY shave instead). But having witnessed a local being shaved, Glenn thought it safe this time - at least the equipment was as expected.

We agreed on a price 15 Turkish New Lira - close to $15 Australian - a step up from the Chinese and Thai haircuts at less than $5... actually we were surprised that prices were similar to that at home - we had expected Turkey to be much cheaper. Glenn couldn't find his Turkish coffee for much less that $4!

Ok, time for the haircut - so far it was ok ... although surprisingly they only used scissors - no clippers (the Chinese had used hair clippers free hand (no sizing combs attached) to trim the back and sides - it made sure Glenn kept still). But this time, Glenn was worried that he would get a typical Turkish haircut - neat but nerdy (yes, more than normal). The haircut didn't turn out too bad though - Glenn relieved, as the barber didn't speak a lot of English.

Then it was time for the shave... with Glenn a little apprehensive. The barber applied plenty of lather, and worked it into Glenn's chin until he wondered what was wrong with it??? Then finally out came the cutthroat razor... so far so good... Glenn was braced for the first cut, but it was not too bad. It was a bit rough on the neck though - and sure enough, there were a few nicks when finished, but not too bad. Much better than the dry disposable shave in Thailand!

The barber returned for a second go to make sure Glenn's face was completely smooth and after getting cleaned, Glenn sat back to relax - glad the ordeal went smooth when suddenly the barber produced a ball of flame near Glenn's face... to which he jumped!

He kept approaching, Glenn's eyes very wide, and realising it was for his ears, Glenn braced as before he could get a cry for help, this ball of flame was being danced near his ear to burn off (supposedly!) excess hairs... Well that was a new experience! Glenn was definitely scared stiff at first.

While calming down, suddenly scissors were produced and snip snip on his eyebrows!! WHAT! I asked for a haircut and a shave - what are you doing to my eyebrows!!! But he had already snipped, so what could Glenn do, but let him even up the other side... then the scissors went for the nose... WHAT!!!... snip snip... trimming the nose hairs....

Glenn was petrified this time, wondering what else could possibly be involved...but all that remained was a wash for his face and then after shave - OOOuuuuchhh! Yes, the neck definitely did get some nicks...

Thinking that there could not possibly be anything else that this barber could do, he suddenly began to give Glenn a massage to his temples - obviously the stress marks on Glenn's face from being petrified showed that he needed relaxing. And it helped, finished by a massage to the shoulders... What an experience.

Still a little shaken, Glenn went back to Christie to show off his cut and tell the story! Christie still had lots of work to go, so Glenn decided to hit the town on his own. He went to visit the University, but it was closed. Continuing on, he went to one of the other main mosques in Istanbul - the Suleymaniye Mosque. Yet again, he had to wait again for the prayer session to finish before visiting. It was another impressive place!

Keen to get to the other side of the bay, Glenn decided to walk to the port and take the tram across the bridge. While taking a photo near the port, a weird guy approached and stared at the camera only about 2 metres away. Glenn put it away and walked away quickly... it was not a good situation - lucky he didn't follow.

The tram terminal was not obvious, so running out of time, Glenn walked over the bridge. It was a good view over to the Asian side of Turkey - and Glenn entertained the thought that it would be interesting to catch a ferry across - he could cross back into Asia again! But there was no time for that now.

After the bridge, there was a steep walk up a hill to Galata Tower - one of the best places for views over Istanbul. It cost $10 for the privilege though ... but after a long walk to get there, Glenn thought that he had better do it.

The view got better as the sun went down - although it was now late and Glenn had to get back to Christie. He managed to get the tram all the way back, and was glad when Christie wasn't too worried that he was gone so long.

The next morning was a nightmare - Christie had bites - bed bugs! No! We had travelled through many third world countries, but this place was meant to be a bit fancier - we were paying quite a bit more than the last place and for what - Bed bugs!!!

Luckily we were leaving today. We had the morning out in town - got lunch at our favourite restaurant and then caught the tram and train back to the airport.

Off to ....
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